History of a farm
The GRUB CSA Farm property tells a story that goes back to the days of John Bidwell
Michael Shaw, a farmer at GRUB CSA Farm, knelt down and picked up a handful of loose, dark soil. “It’s an incredible sandy loam,” he observed, “because we’re so near the river, we’re within the ancient floodplain.” He gestured to a nearby drainage outlet for the newly installed irrigation system.
“We dug four and a half feet down right there, and at the bottom of that pit it was the exact same texture. I mean, it’s just beautiful.”
Time is measured differently on a farm. The rush of spring tilling, seeding, planting, marketing, irrigation and pest management is as hectic as any day at the New York Stock Exchange, but the farmer must also set his metronome to the rhythm of cycles, seasons, generations. Unaided, it takes nature around 500 years to build the average inch of topsoil. The stories of alluvial deposits and glacial till are written in every grain of this soil, along with some more recent, more human narratives.
It is GRUB CSA Farm’s first spring at its new location, a 10-acre parcel on West Sacramento Avenue, a few miles from town. In the field adjacent to the road, a mature cover crop of oats, peas, vetch and fava beans is ready to be turned under. The greenhouse is finished, the first potatoes have been planted, and in an old chicken barn swept clean and filled with produce, the first CSA pickups of the season have begun.
Those 10 acres are the last holdings of the formerly vast Canfield estate. Originally 150 acres of wild land spanning both sides of Sandy Gulch (Lindo Channel), it was purchased from John Bidwell around the turn of the last century when Georgie Canfield and his family headed West from Minnesota. They constructed a large three-story ranch house, subdued the wilderness and put it to dairy cows, alfalfa and prunes. The soil was rich, the milk was flowing and the Canfields had a growing empire on their hands.
Georgie’s granddaughter, Forest Ranch resident Sally Canfield—breezy and animated at 79—lived in the ranch house only briefly. The Canfield tribe was swelling its ranks, and under mounting pressure from his wife, Sally’s father, Ord, determined to move out and build his family a house of their own. He found a large, vacant henhouse, put it on skids, and dragged it half a mile with a team of horses, setting it on the banks of Sandy Gulch on the site where the CSA operates today.
“It was a fair-sized building,” Sally said, “but it was just, you know, no insulation, no paint. So my dad got a pot-bellied stove, and then he got a big mattress and put it on a pulley, and we kids would get into bed, and he’d pulley us up off the floor so the rats couldn’t get to us.”
This was during the final days of the Great Depression, she said, but living on a productive dairy farm and growing their own food, they didn’t want for much.
“When we’d harvest the alfalfa, we’d throw it up on the old horse-drawn wagon,” she said of those days, “and instead of taking it into the barn, sometimes they’d pile it up out behind the house. We’d put a big tarp on it and we’d sleep on it, with the dogs and the cats and everything. You could lie out there and see the stars.”
Years later, after numerous additions and remodels, the old henhouse has been transformed into a comfortable, modern home. There are spacious rooms full of natural light, and a large rustic living room with a stone hearth. Only the bare plank flooring in what is now an artist’s studio—the original henhouse floor—reveals its humble origins.
As the Canfield kids grew up and started their own families, portions of the original 150 acres were carved off and sold. The large ranch house was sold in the 1950s to a local contractor, who tore it down to make way for suburban development: a neighborhood consisting of two strangely incongruous cul-de-sacs named Walnut Circle and Creek Circle, surrounded by miles of orchard.
At about the same time, Ord built six long chicken barns and established a poultry and egg farm that, in its prime, supplied Chico with eggs from some 6,000 laying hens. The barns are still visible from the road today.
When Shaw and his CSA partners Lee Callender and Francine Stuelpnagel arrived last fall to get the soil ready, the structures were engulfed in Himalayan blackberry, elderberry and wild grape. Unused for more than 30 years, they were stacked to the roof beams with junk—the dusty castoffs of tenants or those who worked the land.
With patience, sturdy gloves, and a front loader they’ve begun to push back the wilderness and clear the barns out. They will be used for CSA pickups, public events, storing tractors, implements and tools, and threshing and drying the beans and alliums that are among the farm’s signature crops.
Callender and Stuelpnagel’s second child arrived in March. On spring afternoons, when families arrive to sort through boxes of fresh produce, with Stuelpnagel nursing nearby, one can almost hear the pages of the storybook turning.